Rabbi Dov Wagner shares a story and a lesson from his brother, beloved Toronto Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Akiva Wagner. Plus: A group has stepped up to match the next $50k donated to the Wagner family campaign.
By Rabbi Dov Wagner
On Sunday, we got up from shiva for my brother Akiva. Sunday night, we did our best to celebrate my nephew’s engagement. (Mazal Tov to Noam’s son Chaim!)
Monday was back to excruciating, standing with my 9 nephews and 3 nieces as they said Tehillim and Kadish at their father’s graveside for the unveiling.
And then, to the airport. Honestly, really don’t want to be right now. But I have a shlichus – a mission. Right now, it’s to join my students on their Israel trip. To continue fulfilling my purpose.
It’s a rollercoaster. Not the fun kind.
On Sunday night, several hundred of Akiva’s students gathered on Zoom commemorating the end of the shiva. I shared a story. Reb Zalman Shzerbiner once entered the study of his Rebbe – the Rebbe Rashab – on the morning of the eve of Yom Kippur. “Gut Yom Tov” he cheerfully greeted the Rebbe. But the Rebbe was in a different frame of mind. True, it’s a holiday, he said to Reb Zalman. But it’s the eve of Yom Kippur, the most awe-inspiring and serious day of the year.
“A chossid is a soldier,” was Reb Zalman’s response. “When it’s time to cry, we cry. When it’s time to celebrate, we celebrate. Right now is holiday, and so we celebrate. When the time comes to cry, we’ll do that as well.”
It’s been a time to cry, for my family and for thousands around the world who have been hit hard by my brother’s passing. But now it’s time to start the next step. Vehachay yiten el libo – let the living take to heart. We need to take his lessons to heart and incorporate them into our lives.
Shiva was a week filled with stories. In-person, on WhatsApp, online. People told us about Akiva’s heart: the students he let in without tuition, the loving care he constantly showered on his students, the way each one felt appreciated and loved. The student who was “busted” sneaking away to the library to use the free internet to email his mother – who instead of being punished was given open access to Akiva’s office for whenever he would need to send an email again.
People told us about Akiva’s head: The two volumes of his Torah insights currently in publication, the thousands of pages and hours of recordings still to be compiled, his near-genius ability to assimilate information into novel expositions. The time he made up to test a potential student at 1:30 in the morning after a lively farbrengen. Though he seemed completely exhausted and out of it, he still astounded the brilliant student by rattling off – by heart and with his eyes closed, sprawled on the couch – page after page of intricate and involved Talmudic teachings.
They told us about his humility: how he would often cook himself for the yeshiva when needed. How if a student fell asleep during a late farbrengen on a couch in his home, he’d wake up to find a pillow and blanket lovingly placed. How he exemplified to his students respect and dedication to his teachers and mentors. And they told us about his dedication: every day, praying deliberately and word-by-word in passionate devotion, complete faith and cate even through unimaginable pain in the past few years.
What they didn’t know as much about was his personal life: his incredible attention to each of his children, the deep impact he made on each of his siblings, his devotion to our parents through thick and thin.
There are so many lessons to learn and apply. Greater care in prayers and blessings, greater devotion to Torah study, deeper passion for the spiritual life of a chassis.
Which leads me to one more story. I heard this from Akiva when I was his student in Yeshiva 30 years ago. He told of a peasant in Russia, who was asked what he would do if he had a million rubles. I’d give it the Czar, he responded without delay. And if you had a flock of cattle? I’d give them to the Czar. What about if you had two chickens? Two chickens? he said. That, I’d keep.
Because that I actually have!
It is easy to commit to big things that aren’t real to us, Akiva taught us. But making the little changes, taking the real steps that make us better people – that’s often so much harder.
Akiva is someone who worked tirelessly every day of his life on bettering himself and those around him. I hope we can all take that example to heart, and looks for real and concrete steps we can each take to improve and grow. Please think of a mitzvah you can do in his merit.
On a practical note, if you are able please consider contributing to the fund that has been established to help remove financial worries from his wife and children.
Thank you! May we always share only simchas from now on!
A group of donors, Friends of Chabad USC, will match every dollar of the next $50,000 of donations. Please donate now!